The 279 Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls snatched by gunmen from a boarding school in Nigeria last week were beaten and threatened with being shot, they revealed after their release on Tuesday.
“They started hitting us with guns so that we would move,” Farida Lawali, 15, said as she described being marched barefoot through scrub and being held in a forest. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.”
The authorities have denied that any ransom was paid for the safe return of the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls four days after the night raid on the Government Girls Secondary School in the northwest state of Zamfara, which has been overrun by armed gangs.
Teachers had originally thought that 317 students had been taken, but dozens managed to escape amid the chaos of the raid.
Parents and the girls, wearing Muslim veils, wept with relief as they gathered in a hall at the state building in Zamfara.
President Muhammadu Buhari, 78, is under pressure to halt the security crisis in the northwest, which has involved other mass kidnappings from schools. He said that news of the Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls release brought “overwhelming joy”.
“We are working hard to bring an end to these grim and heartbreaking incidents of kidnapping,” he said. “The military and the police will continue to go after kidnappers.”
Mr Buhari, a former general, has told state officials to review “their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles”, saying that it “could backfire with disastrous consequences”.
Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle denied that money had changed hands for the girls’ freedom and said “repentant bandits” working with the government under an amnesty program had helped to secure the release.
Military reinforcements, including fighter jets and a helicopter gunship, had been deployed to help to repel the attackers, the military said.
Boarding schools in the region have become targets for mass kidnappings by armed criminal gangs. The first mass abductions were carried out by jihadist group Boko Haram — whose name means “Western education is sin” — and continued by its offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province.
The kidnapping on Friday in the remote town of Jangebe was the second in little over a week in the northwest and the third in three months.
One father, whose seven daughters were among those taken and released, said it had made him more determined to ensure that they got an education.
“It’s a ploy to deny our girls from getting the Western education in which we are far behind,” Lawal Abdullahi said. “We should not succumb to blackmail. My advice to government is that they should take immediate precautions to stop further abductions.”
The gangs are largely driven by a lack of jobs and economic opportunities. At least $US11m was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and last March, according to SB Morgen, a geopolitical research consultancy in Lagos.
In December 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in Mr Buhari’s home state of Katsina, while he was visiting.
They were released but the incident revived memories of the 276 mainly Christian schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok, Borno state, in 2014. Many of the girls are still missing.
An insurgency began in the northern area 12 years ago and Mr Buhari has made little progress to end the conflict in which 36,000 people have been killed and about two million people forced to flee.
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